The Tonight Show Transition: Ageism versus Popularity

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Well, its official, after no less than the second major late night shake-up in almost as many years, Jimmy Fallon will in fact be taking over NBC’s The Tonight Show from Jay Leno as of 2014. Of course, to call its departing host of more than twenty years anything less than polarizing would be inaccurate, but still, this just feels a bit wrong.

Sure, there are probably millions of Jay-haters., especially a certain ABC late night host who seems to have built a career as of late trashing him, who are happy to see Leno “get what he deserve” and yes, after his less than angelic handling of both the 1992 changing of the guard, and especially the 2010 Conan Fiasco, I can understand. But from a much larger standpoint, this news is yet another crippling blow to aging.

It’s funny, Jimmy Kimmel has made it loud and clear that he despises Leno, to anyone who will listen, but even the ornery new kid on the block had to admit that he finds this current situation a bit terrifying. And Jimmy, that ominous foreboding feeling ain't wrong. As you stated yourself, this force-out is anything but conducive to your own dreams of growing old with your audience. Jimmy F, you should be scared too!!

I’ve heard all the complaints: Jay’s an out-of-touch hack with more money and vintage cars than God, or everyone hates him, Joan Rivers, to former bestie David Letterman, and the most popular, he’s a backstabbing money-hungry social climber. But regardless of how vociferous the opinion, let’s get things straight, he’s still on top in the ratings: Jay’s being unceremoniously forced out, because in television nowadays, it’s not the eyeballs on you that matter, but that those eyeballs belong to members of the coveted 18 to 34 demographic.

Yes, critics have complained about Hollywood’s not so subtle ageism forever, but this race to remain young, vital, and relevant has really reached desperately critical proportions when ratings no longer even matter!! Imagine if this obsession with demographics had been a factor when Edward R. Murrow aired his news specials, or M.A.S.H had its wildly popular season finale! Do you think the veteran reporter, or Alan Alda would have been replaced with younger stars more appealing to the Spring Breakers crowd?

Need more proof that ageism is alive and more powerful than ever, look at Jay’s predecessor, the all-time king of late night, Mr. Johnny Carson, himself. Sure, he had his notorious beefs with NBC, (the 1980’s anyone?), and however, it was quite clear that Mr. Carson would never be going anywhere until he himself decided it was time. Jay just released a statement saying he felt it was time to go, but c’mon, after a week of brutally bashing his parent network for their callous treatment of him, do you believe it?

Ok, I know what you’re thinking… Hollywood has always been deathly afraid of aging, whether pioneering many of the biggest breakthroughs in plastic surgery or fostering a climate where Greta Garbo felt she had to disappear quietly before her fans could be horrified by the ravages of time, but the advent of the Internet, and more importantly, social media, seems to kicked things into high gear.

That’s because teens and 20-somethings have mastered this new frontier and are dictating the global trends nowadays. Where it used to be a Warren Buffet, or Bill Gates, now its 28-year-old Mark Zuckerberg and his army of t-shirt wearing SEO obsessed youths that are running the world. You ask why baby boomers can’t watch their contemporaries enjoy their jobs and relevance into their golden years, well, here’s your answer.

One simply cannot exist in most competitive professional markets in the world anymore, without a hefty online footprint, especially if you are required to self-promote as celebrities must do. It has become as such that if you are not Instagraming, Tweeting, FB-ing, Pinterest-ing every 5 minutes like the cast of Pretty Little Liars, it is very difficult to a make a mark on this digitally programmed generation. Naturally, this has led to all sorts of cultural exclusion as great people not necessarily well-versed in the language of Social Media are cast aside and forgotten. Basically, it’s The Artist all over again, but instead of talkies it’s Facebook.

Jimmy Fallon, with his expert use of viral videos, easily gif’d or linked sketches and songs, has mastered the realm of social media and thus has much more clout with the online generations. Don’t get me wrong, I love Jimmy and totally agree that he will make a fresh, modern host for the 21st century; I’m not even asking for TV execs to suddenly grow a heart. I just don’t understand why Jay couldn’t have been given the respect of staying at least until the ratings slipped! 

I understand that it’s easy to toss this off as a karma situation, but this isn’t just about Jay. NBC is basically saying to anyone over 34 who doesn’t get all of their news/gossip/ interaction with others online, that you too are a dying breed not worth wasting the money or time to court. Yes. Hollywood’s always been ageist, but suddenly, the whole country, by way of social media has become implicit in this behavior, and now the beast has begun to turn on us all.                                                               


Brad Liberti is a long time entertainment journalist writing from the gay perspective.
















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